Another great job site

I’m on the fly here, madly dashing hither and thither getting my book cover designed and finalized for the new book, while simultaneously trying to write it.

But I found a lovely place to look at for technical writing jobs, something that probably 95% of the people reading this blog can do. Not surprisingly, the site is named Get Technical Writing Jobs (thank you, Captain Obvious!) and it’s a fabulous site with information for all kinds of tech writing jobs all over the place. I recommend it. You can also follow @GetTechWritiJobs on Twitter, which I recommend you do.

Some places to find jobs

A person could write about this forever, and many do. It’s a subject that many of us never get tired of reading or writing about because we are always, always, always looking for new/additional/more work for ourselves, for friends, or just because you can’t really have too many clients.

I’m not even going to try to be canonical in this post. This, instead, is some notes from an online conversation with a friend who asked where to find some additional writing/editing work.

First, I’m going to assume that your desire to find work is going to be fairly immediate. You’re more likely to be looking for work because you need money coming in now, or at least soon. I’m going to throw out a few places to look and some ideas that may be of assistance for finding work if you’re a writer/editor/what-have-you.

  • Mashable has a jobs page that’s very interesting for all kinds of jobs in the social media and networking venues.
  • I really love my agency, Studio B. They’re honorable, likable, and dazzlingly competent. I’m honored to be one of their authors. They’ve a jobs page that you should check out.
  • Considered writing magazine articles? Magazine articles are kinda like cocktail peanuts of writing. The thing about them is that they can generate a truly impressive amount of money for the time you spend on them. (Books can frequently net you as little as a few cents a word, but magazine articles can easily generate $25-$75/hour for your time.) Magazine articles also generate lots of publicity for you and anything else you’re doing. Everything you need to know about getting into the magazine game (and probably a lot more besides) can be found in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles.” Apart from an egregious copyediting error in an early edition that referred to Citizen Cane (I shuddered, too), it’s exceptionally detailed. I wish I’d had this book 20 years ago. Thanks to me telling you about it, you can have it now.
  • LinkedIn has any number of job listings. There are also hundreds of groups focused on every aspect of writing that let you network directly with other writers. My last book happened because I saw someone’s post on LinkedIn looking for a co-author. There’s work to be found and money to be had.
  • Even if you don’t already know me, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a big supporter of the Society for Technical Communication. The biggest reason among many is that I’ve made the best part of a million dollars being part of the STC over the last 25 years, or roughly 300x the amount I paid in dues. I got dozens of contracts and jobs both as the result of networking, job announcements, and just knowing people. In the short term, you can find jobs through your local STC chapter, through STC listserves (notably the STC’s Consultants and Independent Contractors SIG), and the STC’s job announcements themselves. There are many venues for hearing about job listings in the STC.
  • Speaking of listserves, I’d also suggest hanging out on listserves like TechWr-L (which regularly lists jobs), TechComm Pros, HATT for online help writers, Writing That Works, and many more.

That’s all the suggestions I’ve got right off the top of my head. I’m going back to working on my taxes. Have a great day!

Addendum, April 3: You can also check out Tweet My Jobs, which will tweet you with information about jobs.

Do you need to know your topic when you start writing a book?

In a recent post, I described how you don’t need to have an idea to get a book. Yes, it can help, but it’s not necessary; there are plenty of books floating around publishers that need an author to have them assigned to. Easily half of my first dozen books were assigned to me by the acquisitions editors I was working with. They’d suggest ideas for books to me. Some of the ideas I said “No” to: I don’t know enough about programming to write programming books, for example. Others just didn’t grab me or didn’t grab me enough with respect to some of the other projects available to me at the time.

But let’s suppose you like an idea that’s been lofted by the ack ed and want to pursue it. They ask you for a proposal, you say “Yes,” they hang up, and you suddenly realize that you don’t really know the product or the software or whatever very well. Are you doomed? No, probably not. And unless you’ve gotten yourself into completely deep water far out of sight of land, chances are that you’ll be okay.

What you’re going to be doing is writing to learn, as William Zinsser described it in his book of the same name. (I recommend that you buy a copy of this and read it, btw. Zinsser’s books are very approachable and really quite entertaining.) You won’t know a great deal about the topic when you start, but you’ll learn an awful lot as you write the book.

My technique for writing on a topic that I don’t know much about is to take it apart and figure out what skill sets I need to master it. Once I’ve gotten the skill sets identified for the topic, I match my skill sets with the skill sets for the topic and do my best to “surround” it. I then start making connections to the remaining skills I need. In the case of software, I frequently will find that I have most of the skills necessary to use the software, but need some conceptual knowledge and a chance to play with the software to get an idea of what I’m doing. (Picking up software quickly has been an essential ability for me.)

Here’s another place where networking is going to help you: it’s a good idea to cultivate friends who know things you don’t so when you have a question or need someone to give you a quick rundown, they’re able to help. And never discount the wealth of resources on the Internet: look for training materials, exercises, documents, and FAQs. Many colleges post their course materials online. Googling for the topic plus “training” or “classes” can produce a surprising number of relevant hits.

You may not realize it, but you’re already writing to learn. If you write technical manuals or magazine articles, chances are that you’ve written about something you didn’t know everything about when you began. You might have known the previous version of whatever or the topic your article was about, but your research and experimentation filled in the holes in your knowledge. That’s writing to learn, too!

As I’m building the outline for something I don’t know very well, I rely on the structure presented in other books, in training materials, and anything else I can find to get an idea of the structure I want for the book. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever run into something that has the same outline and flow that I’d like to use for a topic.

Writing to learn may sound risky. It’s certainly more work than writing about something you’ve already mastered. But it lets you write a book and stretch yourself intellectually while doing so. There isn’t nearly as much risk as you might think, either. You’ll have an early measure of your ability to do this for a given topic: how well you do on your proposal. When you’ve created the detailed outline, you’ll have a feeling for what you can and can’t do. You can then make plans to fill in the holes in the outline and your knowledge.

On the other hand, if the topic’s too far afield and you can’t gain enough knowledge to feel comfortable, the proposal simply won’t happen. The proposal’s kind of a safety release in that way: if you can’t figure out enough of the material to create a good proposal, then you couldn’t possibly create a good book. In that case, apologize to your ack ed and say that you just don’t have enough knowledge on the topic to do well. It’s possible that your ack ed may nevertheless feel that the topic is something you can master (and they can give you some pointers on what you need to learn specifically) or that you might do well with a co-author who’s got product knowledge but lacks your writing skills… in which case, you’ll learn a lot about the product from working with an expert.

Writing to learn works. It takes some extra effort, but if you think about it, chances are you’ve already been doing it for a lot of other writing assignments.

“But what do I write about?”

I’m finally past the hump of having been to South by Southwest, getting home, and unpacking. Life’s been busy with learning how to get a book listed on Amazon and other busynesses, but I’m able to at last turn my attention back to the blog.

One of the many great things I attended while I was at South by Southwest was a party put on by Peachpit Press. Peachpit is a wonderful company that’s been in business for about 25 years. They’re based in Berkeley. Peachpit focuses on smaller technical books that are incredibly well-designed, short, and informative. I’ve never been dissatisfied with any Peachpit book I’ve read. I had the honor of writing two books for Peachpit 20 years ago, too. They’re lovely people to work with.

While I was at their party, I was chatting with a new author who’s written one book and really enjoys it. He was saying that he’d like to write more books but he wasn’t sure what to write about. It sounded like a blog topic and I said as much to him. (I touched on this briefly in an early blog post, but there’s more to be said.) The question is “Do need an idea to become an author?” The answer is “no, not necessarily.” Here’s why:

Many people have the technical skill to be an author and know that they’d like to get into this silly business; their problem is that they’re not sure what to write about. You can still identify general topics you’d like to write about and personal strengths in your writing. Even if this doesn’t point you at a specific set of topics to write about, it’ll help narrow the field. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, I do very well writing books about computer and software basics, stuff for the 1st– and 2nd-tier users. I wouldn’t do nearly as well for the senior developer because I don’t think I have enough coding knowledge these days… although I might be able to co-author a book on that topic with an author who does have the technical chops to do coding examples and so on. I also know that I’ve got a long history of co-authoring books and I rather like that. I have even batted clean-up in a few cases: gone in to pick up a project that someone else had been working on and had gotten jammed up and couldn’t work on anymore. All of these things go on my list.

With this in mind, I pitch an acquisitions editor saying that I can do all of this nifty keen things and does s/he have a project that needs an author. And you know… sometimes, they do. It’s easiest to approach a publisher if you have a book proposal in hand about a specific topic, but it’s also true that publishers will have ideas for books lying around on their desks that don’t have authors assigned to them. My very first book happened that way, in fact: I had pitched one book and they didn’t like it, but they said “Stick around, kid, we wanna work with you. How’d you like to write a book on Word?” Sure, what the heck? And lo! I became an author shortly thereafter.

If you want to try this bookwriting stuff out but you don’t have an idea in mind, don’t despair. If you’re already writing manuals or articles, look at what you’ve been writing about professionally. Add whatever other skills you can add to this list: for example, you may be a whiz at setting up computers, at cooking, or at helping your clients analyze their interior design needs. All of these add depth to your writing and increase the potential for a variety of non-fiction books. Good topic knowledge combined with writing ability is enough to sell most publishers on you as a potential author.

So, even if you don’t have a specific book idea to propose, a general list of topics may well be enough to start with. The publisher will be able to aim you in the right direction for the project they have in mind. They might say “Hmmm… I need a proposal on a book about muckle manufacturing in Lower Slobbovia by Thursday” and if you want to take a crack at it, you can grab that book template off the blog here and whip one out. They’ve provided you the basic idea and will tell you who they want you to write it for and how; all you have to do is figure out how you’re going to do that and write it. (Simple, huh?)

Do you need an idea to become an author? Nope. It may make it easier to get in the door, but it’s more important to be able to write and know where your strengths lie. Everything else you may end up making up as you go along.

The Double Tall Press website is up

This is only a preliminary website without any features yet, but you can see the Double Tall Press logo and get a little information about the Independence series that we’re starting with.

In fact, here’s what the logo looks like (although this is not the final colors):

Preliminary Double Tall Press logo

What kind of shoulder bag do you need?

I’m in pre-game for SxSW at the moment. I’m printing things, packing things, and figuring out what I need to put in the suitcase for maximum efficiency and minimum weight. The idea for this particular post was from John Limon, who I was talking to about shoulder bags on the phone yesterday morning. I was mentioning that the LA Police Gearbailout bag” that I’d bought was good, but it didn’t have the right kind of pockets. “What kind of pockets would a technical writer need on a bag?” John wondered out loud, and I knew I had either the theme for a blog post or a bunch of tacky jokes.

The best way to start is to identify the things I normally have in my shoulder bag when I’m running around at a conference.

  • lots of pens (I can never have too many pens with me, it seems)
  • a couple of permanent markers
  • a highlighter
  • overhead transparency markers
  • a small LED flashlight
  • a small container of hand sanitizer
  • post-it notes
  • Altoids
  • business cards
  • a hairbrush
  • one of those little hotel sewing kits
  • nail clippers
  • a book of matches
  • ear plugs (usually for use on the plane)
  • address labels (several sheets of those address labels I’m constantly getting from the charities I give to; they’re great for quickly signing your name and address on request for more information or a vendor entry card)
  • extra phone charger
  • a Zone bar or the like
  • some hard candies
  • a digital camera, batteries, and cable
  • blood glucose meter
  • diabetes meds
  • a charger for the bluetooth headset

I also tend to carry a few additional things in the bag, such as one large and two small ziploc bags. They come in handy for ad hoc collections of kibble or other things.

Note: This doesn’t count the computer bag I usually carry as well, which contains the laptop, charger, a notebook, and misc computer supplies. This upcoming trip, I’m going to use one of those cute little Toshiba notebooks that weigh 3 pounds. It’ll fit neatly inside the bag, but I’ll probably want to carry the charger, a mouse, and anything else that goes with it, so it’ll be kinda bulky.

So this is the list of goodies in the bag at the start of a day at the conference. There may be other things, like a yellow pad in a folder and maybe a piece of fruit or bottle of water that I cabbaged from the breakfast buffet, but this is the minimum. By the end of the day at most conferences, you can add to this list a dozen or so pens, a few post-it note pads, stacks of flyers and one-sheets, brochures, giveaway items, and other chachkes from the vendor rooms. The bag can fill up quickly with assorted desk kibble, which is admittedly kinda fun to unload at the end of the day.

What I’ve found I like is for my shoulder bag to have a variety of small pockets, particularly ones designed to hold pens and little office supplies (like the post-it notes) and several pouches that are good for the flyers and one-sheets. As you can see from the picture, the bailout bag is an awfully good bag, but the pockets aren’t optimal because they don’t seal completely and there’s nothing quite right for pens. I’m going to be trying it at SxSW next week for the first time for a whole conference, so I’ll see how it works out, but I am wondering if it’s the best solution.

I think that what I carry around with me is similar to what a lot of tech writers are likely to carry. Admittedly, I do tend to carry a lot of oddments in the bag–I don’t often need the sewing kit, but it’s as much knowing where to find it as anything and it weighs nothing–but I do find that it’s very useful to have these things handy so I can grab them the instant I need them. (Your comments here are welcome: what kinds of things do you tend to carry that are different from my list?)

After going through a couple of nylon mesh messenger bags, I’ve discovered that I really like a wide, strong shoulder strap that attaches firmly. The metal snap-on clips have a tendency to splay out after a few years, resulting in the shoulder strap suddenly coming undone. I reinforce them with the little D-rings that are frequently given away by vendors. They’re a good backup system and they relieve the strain on the snaps, too, so I recommend you use this trick on shoulder bags and computer bags both.

So I’m going to give the bailout bag a try and see how it works. If you’re in the market for a good shoulder bag yourself, check out the LA Police Gearbailout bag” and see if it looks like what you’re after. If not, take a look at nylon or leather messenger bags, which have a lot of pockets and are slightly bigger.

Addendum: There’s a lovely article you might also enjoy along related lines. It’s Tantek’s SXSW Packing List.

Why self-publishing may be a good idea

I recently got an interesting email from someone in a Linkedin writers’ group. He asked met about the value of self-publishing:

I am of two minds about self-publishing. On the one hand, I can’t get away from the idea of the “vanity press,” which meant little more than a bindery service, where you ended up with a garage full of books you had to market (usually to unsuspecting friends and family). And the idea of paying someone to publish me, instead of the other way around, is also a tough pill to swallow.

On the other hand, members of this and other groups praise the idea highly. And the writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in her blog, has done a complete 180-degree turnaround on the issue in about a year, and now sees it as the next wave of publishing and distribution. So I don’t know what to think.

Have you made a profit, or at least earned back your initial investment? Are your ideas getting exposure? How much of your own publicity have you had to do?

I really liked this. I used to also not be a fan of self-publishing, not because it was bad somehow, but there was a ton of work to be done with it and I didn’t see how to do the marketing and distribution. But thankfully, the Internet has changed all that.

As with almost everything else I do with writing and publishing, my reasons for self-publishing the current book are economic: I stand to make a bunch more money doing the book myself.

The current book is technical, dealing with a software product. If I went with a standard publisher of this kind of technical book, I’d need to show them that this book was likely to generate at least 8-10K sales in 18-24 months. I can’t do that; I’m thinking that I’ll probably sell 2000 copies in that time (based on the marketing information, the phase of the moon, and that Seven of Clubs you have in your hand). That’s just not worth it to a standard publisher. But even if I *COULD* generate that many sales (and I’d be glad to be wrong), the economics wouldn’t be worth it for me: I’d make, oh, $1.50-$2.00/copy for a potential total of $15,000-$20,000. That’s not a lot of money for the 4 months of work getting this out, even assuming I was able to sell that many copies.

Now, let’s look at self-publishing. For this particular book, I’m going to be handling the printing myself with a standard printer, rather than POD through Lulu or the like. (I’m also looking at ebook options, but go with me on the idea of printing because it’s a fixed cost.) Quotes that I’ve received are $6900 delivered for 2000 copies of a standard 9″ x 7″ trade paperback. Adding in all the other costs I’m incurring and my cost of goods will probably be about $5/copy. My sales price for this book is going to be $39.95 initially and $49.95 six months down the road.

If I sell all 2000 copies at the initial price, I’ll make $80,000, less the $10K this is all going to cost me to set everything up, for a gross revenue of $70,000 for four months work. In addition, part of my effort has been setting up a publishing company, Double Tall Press, to go along with all of this, so I’ll have a publishing venue of my very own with website, logos, brand, and so on. (The website has a placeholder at With luck, I’ll have a draft of my new website there very soon.)

Marketing for this book will be something handled largely through the company whose product I’m writing about, as it inures massively to their benefit to have this book out there. Future scheduled books have different marketing requirements that I’m addressing appropriately for each one.

Vanity presses are vanity presses, without a doubt, whether they’re classic printers or they’re online POD houses. But self-publishing can definitely work out for you.

It’s always feast or famine

Suppose you’re writing a book, any book. That’s wonderful, but remember that unless you have a really fat advance, you’re not going to be making money while you write the book. If you can spit a book out in 3-4 months, you’ll probably not deplete your savings too badly, but you’re going to want to have something lined up you can leap on when you’re done.

Let’s further suppose that another writing contract heaves into view. It doesn’t matter what, but it represents real money that you can use to refill the savings and pay off the miscellaneous expenses that you’ve ~a-hem~ been putting on a credit card. And that’s really good, too.

The only problem is getting the timing to work out right. Can you predict accurately to the day, or even the week, when the book is going to be done? No, probably not. You can certainly set yourself deadlines and push yourself to achieve them and you may, but writing a book is not the easiest thing in the world to estimate. Even more so, you may be picking things up as you go (as Bill Zinsser describes it, “writing to learn“), making it that much harder to identify parts of your process. You’ll be enriched and enlightened by what you discover, but the chances are very good that you’ll see at least one delay as a result of your educational process.

Or even worse for your schedule, what if the new gig comes in so that it overlaps the last few weeks of your book writing schedule? The new gig may be another great book, a long-term writing contract at $60/hour, or a magazine article you promised to do, but the problem is still that you have to squeeze out twice as many writing hours/day as there probably are. And the worst part is that the overlap is hitting you at the very worst part of your writing madness on the book.

What do you do? First, try to get as much slack in the new schedule as you can. If you don’t really need to start the new project immediately and have some time for delivery, you may have all the wiggle room you need. You’ll drink a lot of coffee, bang the keyboard that much harder, and finish the book… then you’ll drink a lot more coffee, bang the keyboard, and meet your first deadlines on the new project. (See, I told you: writing is fun!)

Another possibility is subcontracting: if there’s some way to quietly farm out a small piece of whatever you’re doing on one project or another, consider doing it. You’ll make a little less money than you would’ve, but you’ll still make more money than if you’d said “No” to the new project.

Most of the time, the answer is to scream a little in your office, and just blaze away as hard and fast as you can. Authors and freelance writers all recognize that “burning the candle at all three ends” feeling that happens regularly. The life of an author is always feast or famine. It’s always better to have too much than too little, but you’re still going to work hard for it at times. You may console yourself with the thought that this is a job with no heavy lifting and keep typing.

Tweaking the blog

I’m not a big fan of justified text, so I’m pleased to have the blog changed to ragged right. I’m not a WordPress maven, so special thanks to Vonda McIntyre (for those of you who don’t know her, Vonda is the World’s Nicest Person®) for telling me where to look for the text alignment setting.

Speaking of Vonda McIntyre, you should check out the Book View Café, where you can buy ebooks from Vonda, Ursula LeGuin, and many other fiction writers for relatively small amounts of money. It’s a major bargain and a chance to read great novels you haven’t read before.

The books I always recommend

There are a few books that I recommend to everyone who’s a writer, everyone who’s a freelancer, everyone who’s a captive employee, and everyone who works in high tech. Yes, they’re that meaningful. And none of them are “The Secret” or “Who Moved My Cheese?” or anything insipid like that. These books are:

Okay, now I’ll tell you why they’re important.

Clutter’s Last Stand” is at the top of the list because everyone needs this, no matter who they are. Don Aslett defines “clutter” as anything that you’re not using and have no immediate plans for but that you’re hanging on to for whatever reason. This includes things you’re hanging on to because they might be worth something someday, you may have a need for it, or just because you don’t want to throw it out. In fact, most of the time, clutter is filling up space in your life and using up time, blocking out things that you really want to do or get to and can’t. The message of “Clutter’s Last Stand” is that if you’re not using it and you don’t have plans for it and it doesn’t make you feel good to keep it, get rid of it! It’ll save you time, it’ll make it easier to move around, and you’ll feel incredibly free for the doing of it.

The Richest Man in Babylon” is the first book you need to read about making and saving money. There’s an updated version “for the 21st Century” but you don’t really need that; stick with the basics. This is good, solid advice that I recommend. It works. And as you’re reading it, your internal dialog is going to be saying “Yes, but….” here and there. Here’s how you deal with that: the book is right. You’re wrong. Shut up and keep reading. Then do this. It works. It really works. It’s all that simple. If you stick to it, you’ll be in good shape. You can follow up by reading “The Millionaire Next Door” (which is also pretty good and along the same lines) if you need more financial smacking around. “The Richest Man in Babylon” has been around for longer than you or I have been alive and is readily available in the library if you don’t want to buy it.

Up the Organization” was the foundation of “Theory Y” management: the idea that people want to work and they want to work hard and well given the opportunity. It’s a bunch of little pieces of no more than 200 words each that Townsend would jot down in a notebook. There are surprisingly few things that are dated. I have often found myself quoting things from this. There are a few additional books he wrote in the same style, all of which are equally good. You can find Townsend in the public library, too.

The Secrets of Consulting” is a book that anyone who wants to get into freelance work of any kind needs to read. I like most of what Gerry Weinberg wrote, but this is my fave of his. “The Secrets of Consulting” presents many different lessons about consulting using stories and parables. They all end with a moral you can remember, such as Rudy’s Rutabaga Rule: “After you solve your #1 problem, your #2 problem gets a promotion.” (See how easy that was for me to remember?) This is a book that is fun to read. BTW, if you’re working programmers, I strongly recommend “The Psychology of Computer Programming.”

Peopleware” is a seditious book. It may not quite as much use to you if you’re working in a non-technical environment, but it’s still valuable. The premise of the book is that it’s rarely the technology that kills projects, it’s managing the people. Their example of this is accounting software. Accounting software is not rocket surgery; it’s the antithesis of rocket surgery, in fact… yet 9 out of 10 accounting systems are never completed. Ergo, it’s a people issue. They’re right, too. But I think I can sell you on the book by telling you how I was sold on it: Chapter 8 is entitled [insert drumroll] “The Furniture Police.” That oughta tell you everything you need to know about the book.

There are lots of other books that I can recommend, and probably will as I think of them. But the fact that I always think of these books when I list books that people should read says to me that these are the books that you should read, too.